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Wednesday, February 04, 1998

Secret balloting faces challenge

By Sally Gilman
Eagle-Tribune Writer

Some townspeople in Derry, Atkinson, Newton, Plaistow and other Southern New Hampshire communities want to repeal the secret ballot law and return to traditional annual meetings where they haggled, debated and voted all in one sitting.

But backers of the new law, known as Senate Bill 2, say it is the best way to do school and town business. They want to convince their neighbors to reject efforts to repeal the law when they go to the polls March 10.

Repeal of the ballot law for the Derry school district is a big election issue.

Sandra Hopfgarten is chairman of the Derry Taxpayers Association, which wants the law kept. The group will go door-to-door to urge voters to reject the repeal article.

"SB2 is not about budgets. It's about voting access," Mrs. Hopfgarten said. "We'll tell people that if they choose to repeal SB2, in order to vote on any school issue they would have to go to the annual meeting. There is no absentee ballot under the town meeting form of government."

The ballot law, which took effect in some towns last year, replaces traditional meetings. It calls for voters to debate at deliberative sessions what will go on the March 10 ballot. Each issue is then voted on secretly in the voting booth.

Peg Lipin is chairman of Friends of Education in Derry. She signed the repeal petition.

"It's time to take a look at what it's done and how people feel about it," Mrs. Lipin said. "It's a chance to look at the pros and cons."

David G. LeFrancois, and about 100 other voters across Derry, signed the repeal petition. He favors the traditional annual meeting.

"You go to the annual meeting, debate and vote on the issues and budget at that time," said Mr. LeFrancois, a member of the Friends of Education. He said under the ballot law, voters may loose some ability to connect the debate at the deliberative session with the final decision at the polls.

In Pelham, the ballot law is being proposed for the town. It was defeated two years ago. Last year a charter proposal was on the ballot and by law, that question takes precedence over Senate Bill 2. The Pelham school district has operated under the ballot law for two years.

Selectmen Chairman William McDevitt said defeat of the charter option cleared the way for another go at Senate Bill 2 this year.

He said he opposes it for the town because it has not worked for the school district. The school deliberative session started Saturday, reconvened Monday night and continues tomorrow night.

"A sea of empty chairs at Pelham High is the first signal that SB2 does not work as advertised," Mr. McDevitt said.

He said Senate Bill 2 narrows options.

"Under the old system, people would say 'if we pass Article 3 then let's agree now that we'll act on Article 4,' " he said. He said the new ballot law eliminates that flexibility.

Selectman Gregory Farris said the ballot law works, however. He wants it for the town side.

"Each town meeting, we get less and less people," Mr. Farris said. "Senate Bill 2 allows people to attend the deliberative session, have 30 days to learn and discuss the facts and then make a decision."

Atkinson voters are also asked to repeal the ballot law.

"Backers of SB2 said it would be so much better," Rep. Natalie S. Flanagan, R-Atkinson, who favors repeal, said. "I don't think people are better informed." She said townspeople have told her it was a mistake to adopt it for the town.

John F. Kiley of Atkinson is one of about 30 people who backed the ballot law two years ago. He said it works for the town and Timberlane Regional school district, which includes Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow and Sandown. There is also an article to repeal it on the school district ballot.

"People don't want to go and sit at town meeting for eight or nine hours," Mr. Kiley said. "Why should a couple with young children be denied an opportunity to vote because they have no one to stay with their children?"

He said the ballot law is fair for everyone.

"This is what they want to take away from us," he said. "What an insult to 75 percent of the people in Atkinson who voted for Senate Bill 2."

WHAT TOWNS ARE DOING

Petitions to repeal Senate Bill 2 are on the following ballots:

Atkinson town

Derry school district

Newton town

Plaistow town

Sanborn Regional School District (Kingston, Newton)

Sandown town

Timberlane Regional School District (Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow, Sandown)

Petition to adopt Senate Bill 2:

Pelham

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